Life after garbage

People living the zero-waste lifestyle share their message

Rebekkah Ragan’s family and friends don’t understand her, and it’s not just because she and her partner only use one roll of toilet paper a month.

Ragan has a “zero-waste” life, with the goal of generating as little garbage as possible.

To get rid of plastic packaging, Ragan not only just uses recyclable bags and mason jars for shopping, but also makes products on her own. “It really wasn’t that long ago that we were living relatively zero-waste,” she says, “like 50 years before.”

Her dry shampoo is made with arrowroot powder and cocoa powder. The arrowroot absorbs grease and cocoa powder matches her hair colour. Ragan demonstrates with a brush, dabs the powder onto her hair roots, and rub it in. She says the powder will have a reaction with the grease and it will go away eventually. She also made her mouthwash. It contains mouthwash baking soda, xylitol, and peppermint essential oil.

Based on the HRM’s solid-waste sorting guide (available at halifax.ca), all washroom waste is supposed to go into the landfill. Ragan says she tries to avoid the unnecessary use of washroom items, like toilet paper, to reduce the amount of that waste.

Ragan also spent $70 on a bidet, which is a plumbing fixture attached under the toilet seat. The bidet delivers a spray of warm water to assist with post-elimination clean-up and cut the need for toilet paper. “This one roll of paper hanging here just in case our guest feels uncomfortable when using the bidet,” she says.

Kate Pepler also embraces the zero-waste lifestyle. She has more than 100 reusable jars, and a special jar that holds every piece of garbage she’s generated since January 2017.

Zero-waste advocate Kate Pepler generated enough garbage to fill just one Mason jar in 2017. Photo by Sixian Zuo

Inside this jar, there are cropped Visa card pieces, clothing labels, a Band-Aid, and plastic packing from a meat thermometer. The most common type of garbage in the jar are fruit stickers.

She started collecting her daily trash into the jar after she was already used to living with zero waste. She says the visible amount of garbage helps her “see what areas I could further reduce my waste.”

It’s not as hard as many people think. “Somebody from the outside looking in at a glance wouldn’t think I live differently than everybody else,” she says. “But once you start looking closer, it’s like no disposable cups and drinking-water bottles, reusable containers and all those little things add up to make it a zero-waste lifestyle.”

There’s more to it than a jar, but the visualization helps. “It’s pretty powerful to see all I’ve created, but most people create more than that in a day,” Pepler says.

Jane Rovers, a mother of two kids, believes at the heart of the lifestyle or movement, is saving: saving the environment, time, health, and money.

All totalled, the people of Halifax Regional Municipality generate some 100,000 tons of trash annually; roughly 250 kg per resident. On Jan. 1, China’s garbage-import ban started, forcing the city to find a new place for its plastic and paper/cardboard waste. Since then, Halifax struggled with its big mountain of plastic waste. Policymakers are discussing many possible solutions, including banning single-use plastic bags.

Pepler says she weighs her trash jar; she generated 2.6 ounces of trash in more than one year.

“The average Canadian produces about two kg of solid waste per day, more than almost any citizen in the world,” she says, citing data from Clean Nova Scotia.

The “garbage problem, in my opinion, hinges around consumption,” says HRM Councillor Richard Zurawski, who often advocates for green policies. Zurawski adds that he and his wife try to restrict their purchases to food, fuel, and necessary repairs.

Christmas gifts were Rovers’s biggest dilemma.

“It is beyond our control and I find it frustrating,” she says. She noticed that after Christmas Day, there was a lot of waste from gifts, so she’s wants to encourage people to replace wrapping paper and gift bags with reusable cloth, recycled paper, or jars.

“It’s just the small changes that make a big impact,” she says.

Pepler has been transitioning to a zero-waste life for more than two years. Using a reusable water bottle was Pepler’s first change followed by reusable coffee mugs. She says she will not have coffee unless she has her thermos on hand or sits down at the coffee shop with a mug.

“Zero waste is a good idea, but it also means a lot of changes to your lifestyle,” says Dalhousie instructor Catherine Boulatoff, who teaches Economics of Municipal Solid Waste and is now looking into zero waste. “Any change, general for people, it is hard; it’s just a matter of making it worthwhile.”

But Boulatoff says chances are slim that everyone will adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, but a few policy changes could make a difference. “For example, it can start with bringing your own non-plastic bags [to stores],” she says. “You have to finalize [a plastic-bag ban], so that everybody has incentive to do that.”

“It is like a chain action,” says Ragan. She posts a lot of tips and questions on Reddit to ask other Haligonians about their zero waste life.

Rovers started zero-waste accounts on both Twitter and Instagram a few months ago. She shares her idea about how to get around plastic or paper waste by giving e-gift cards, buying sticker-free local fruits and vegetables and encouraging people to go to pick-your-own farms in Nova Scotia.

She says she wants to create some space where people can all share their zero waste experience. “It’s hard to learn everything on your own and obviously you always learn better in a community from other people sharing,” Rovers says.

And beyond helping the planet, there’s a simple benefit, as she explains on Instagram: “Zero-waste habits will help you happily live with less.”

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